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Bulgaria - Getting Around

The lack of investment in public transport over the past 10-15 years has left it in a sorry state, with semi-derelict stations, run-down vehicles and demoralized staff, and although private bus companies have taken up the slack on major routes, the state-owned network has drastically contracted. While transport remains cheap it is also slow, a failing compounded by Bulgaria's mountainous terrain and climatic extremes (which rapidly degrade tarmac), with train journeys between the north and south being particularly prone to roundabout routes and changes. Bear in mind, too, that schedules are designed to fit in with the working day. There may be several departures in the early morning, then nothing until mid-afternoon, with nothing at all on Sundays.

The fragmentation of the transport system is reflected in the timetables ( razpisanie ) in train and bus stations, which used to be on a clearly legible board but are nowadays often merely scribbled on a piece of paper stuck to the window of the ticket office. Usually, arrivals ( pristigane ) are listed on one side, and departures ( trâgvane or zaminavane ) on the other. To make things harder for travellers, the schedules of private buses are unlikely to be posted at all, and it's impossible to buy a national train timetable: in addition, any timetables that do exist are invariably in Cyrillic.

By train
Bulgarian State Railways ( BDZh ) can get you to most towns we mention, although trains are very slow by Western standards and delays are common on the longer routes. Intercity ( intersiti ) and express ( ekspresen vlak ) services only operate on the main trunk routes, but on everything except the humblest branch lines you'll find so-called rapid ( bârz vlak ) trains. Use these rather than the snail-like pâtnicheski (; literally "passenger train", but meaning "slow" in this context) services unless you're planning to alight at some particularly insignificant halt. Generally speaking, intercity services are the only ones which carry a buffet car, so if travelling on another type of train, make sure you have enough food and drink to survive the journey. On timetables, the four types of services are indicated by the abbreviations and express services are usually lettered in red. A reservation ( zapazeno myasto ; about 20˘ in addition to the basic ticket price) is compulsory on intercity and express services, and advisable for all other trains if you're travelling on summer weekends. You might find yourself paying a hefty surcharge if you board a train without one.

Though a national timetable ( pâtevoditel ) is extremely useful for frequent train travellers, the chances of obtaining one are slim, as they're snapped up immediately after publication each May. If you do get hold of a copy, note that trains running on a particular day only are indicated by a number in a circle (for example, 1 = Monday, 2 = Tuesday, and so forth). International services are printed in the Roman alphabet, rather than Cyrillic.

Long-distance/overnight trains have a wagon with reasonably priced couchettes ( kushet ;) and/or sleepers ( spalen vagon ). At the time of writing you can travel from Sofia to Varna by sleeper for under US$15, which probably works out cheaper than a night's accommodation. In order to secure a bed on the train, you need to reserve a day or two in advance, and, if possible, at least a week in advance in July or August.

Commonly, a single sign halfway down the platform is all that identifies a station ( gara ). If you're sitting at the back, you won't see this until the train starts up again, so try to sit up front. Most stations have a left-luggage office ( garderob ); in the large ones you may need to complete a form before stowing your gear.

By bus
In many parts of Bulgaria it's necessary - or easier - to travel by bus ( avtobus or, colloquially, reis ), especially in the Rhodopes and the Pirin, where few of the attractions are accessible by train. Each town of any size has a bus station ( avtogara ), or sometimes two, as buses operated by private companies may use another depot (often just a parking lot); in cities, this duplication can result in three or four terminals. Since the buses run by private companies are usually newer than the vehicles owned by municipalities, they tend to be more comfortable and faster, particularly if the route follows a highway through the lowlands rather than mountain roads. The drawback is that infomation on schedules is harder to obtain as few companies post timetables, so that you may have to ask at several kiosks to get the full picture. In some cases the vehicles are minibuses, and leave as soon as they're full; such services are called marshrutni taxi.

By taxi
Providing you don't get ripped off, taxis are a reasonably priced and useful way of getting around in towns and cities, or reaching places that aren't accessible by public transport. All licensed taxis are metered, and generally charge about 20˘ initially, plus 20˘ per kilometre thereafter during the day (twice as much at night), except for taxis on the Black Sea coast, whose rates are three to four times higher (though city taxis in Varna and Burgas charge normal rates). The minority of taxi drivers out to take advantage of foreigners tend to hang around airports, major train stations and city centre hotels, so it's best to go looking for a taxi elsewhere if you have the option. We've given phone numbers of some reputable taxi firms in the relevant sections, though it is unlikely that anyone on the other end of the line will speak English.

By car
Foreigners may drive in Bulgaria using their national driving licence (though, should you stay longer than six months, it must be translated and legalized), but most of the neighbouring countries require an international licence. It is obligatory to have third-party insurance plus a "Green" or "Blue" card - the latter can be bought at the frontier. Entering Bulgaria, your vehicle will be registered with a special " visa tag " or carnet de passage which must be presented on leaving - a rule intended to prevent foreigners from selling their cars. As car theft is endemic and Bulgaria is a major transit route for stolen vehicles, drivers bringing their own car should be sure to carry their log book (and make photocopies of it), their driving licence and carnet de passage, and take every precaution against the documents and the vehicle being stolen. Use guarded parking lots wherever possible, and never leave vehicles on sidestreets unless fitted with wheel locks and immobilizers.

Upon arrival in Bulgaria, an entrance fee is payable on all motor vehicles (car/van US$10; minibus seating 8 or more US$60), plus a disinfection fee (car US$2; van/minibus US$4) - though EU citizens are exempt from the former charge.

Hitching ( autostop ) is fairly widespread in rural Bulgaria, where local drivers are used to giving lifts to villagers in the absence of buses, but motorists are less accommodating on busier routes, where bus and train services are better. In addition, now that robberies and rapes are far more common, both drivers and hitch-hikers are a lot more cautious than they used to be. Women are strongly advised not to hitch, and even male travellers should exercise caution about which lifts to accept.

It's best to carry a sign in Cyrillic if you're heading for somewhere distant.

By air
Daily BALKAN flights are the quickest way to travel between Sofia and the Danubian and Black Sea ports, and given the length of the train journey (6-8hr) a flight to Varna or Burgas is worth considering. The difference in cost is considerable, however: fares from Sofia work out at about US$65 one way for non-Bulgarians, as opposed to about US$10 by bus or train. You'll need to book the day before (most flights leave around 7-8am), if not two or three days in advance for services to the coast.